Sommelier wine buying strategies and cold-climate wine education.
Wine can be appreciated all year, but it’s especially apropos during the holiday season. Dinner parties, restaurant gatherings and holiday gift giving tend to make wine top of mind for many revelers. So, with stemware in one hand, we connected with local experts for information to help would-be wine drinkers get more comfortable buying, ordering and gifting wine during the holidays, or for that matter, any time of year. Because, anytime can be wine time.
Sarina Garibović is a certified sommelier and owner of Ženska Glava, a woman owned and operated wine and spirits events business. Garibović became interested in wine and wine education while working in the hospitality industry and used her education to help create restaurant wine lists and teach servers how to make wine more approachable without over-simplifying. She also founded a nonprofit with fellow sommeliers call Twin Cities Somms. We asked Garibović what to look for in a wine best suited to your occasions. She says, “As a somm, what we’re thinking about is what do you usually like to drink? What flavor profiles do you already appreciate? If you love a California pinot noir, you probably like fruity wine with some acidity. Also, price is a factor for everyone, so we might ask which producers you enjoy in order to see what you’re used to paying; because you might not love a fantastic wine if you feel like you’ve overpaid!” For the adventurous types who prefer to try new things and for whom it doesn’t matter if those things align with what you already like, then Garibović tends to suggest wines from underrepresented regions like Slovenia because, “It can be good and also be a better value.”
Most importantly, Garibović encourages people to ask the staff at any restaurant or wine seller. They should know about the wines they offer. She says, “Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask questions, because a little bit of knowledge can go a long way, for example knowing things like more fruit character typically comes from a warmer climate where there is riper fruit and more sugar and higher alcohol. Knowing a little bit about how grapes are grown can go a long way.”
We dove deeper into our wine glass and asked Garibović’s opinion about some common wine varieties.
Cabernet Sauvignon — In a restaurant setting, if guests say they frequently enjoy cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley, that gives a lot of information about the character of the fruit they may expect, whether they expect the wine to undergo barrel aging as well as the price they are accustomed to spending on a bottle. The land in Napa Valley is quite expensive and new oak barrels are used to produce many cabernet sauvignons in the area, all leading to a higher cost for the finished wine.
Merlot — Merlot used to be quite popular but has since fallen out of favor with many drinkers, arguably due to the popular movie Sideways, which created a preference for pinot noir. This makes merlot, a delicious wine worthy of frequent enjoyment, on par with a passion project for many producers. Much like cabernet sauvignon, merlot is a wine with grippier tannins, lots of ripe black fruit character and pairs well with weightier dishes like steak.
Pinot Noir — Pinot noir is a hugely popular grape variety that can express itself in wildly variable ways due to factors such as climate, soil type, aspect and aging methods. Typically, pinot noir coming from a cool place like Burgundy, the Loire Valley and Oregon will have a lighter body, show high toned red fruit and herbs with more acidity while examples from California will express themselves with richer fruit, a fuller body and more subdued acid. If you love pinot noir from Burgundy or Oregon but find the offerings restrictive due to budget, try gamay from the same places, which can offer similar qualities with a typically more affordable price tag.
Malbec — Originating in France where it is known as cot, it has really exploded in popularity and low cost examples are practically ubiquitous. The issue with malbec occurs when the cheap examples available in grocery stores cannot be found on wine lists and are instead replaced by higher quality examples at surprisingly high prices. This is because though malbec originated in France, it is now produced primarily in Mendoza, Argentina, where it can vary greatly in quality depending on where it is grown and the methods used to produce it. Stick to affordable examples when buying retail for everyday wines, but talk with your server in a restaurant for help finding a great example or another wine that matches your preferences.
Zinfandel — It can be misunderstood because of the way the grape bunches ripen on the vine. Unlike other red grapes, which ripen at relatively the same speed, becoming darker and concentrating sugars over time, zinfandel can have a bunch of grapes with green grapes, ripe grapes and raisins all at the same time. In the finished wine, this can mean a range of fruit character and perception of body and texture. More and more, producers are aiming for a more balanced zinfandel rather than pushing the limits of harvest time to get the most ripe fruit, which has in the past contributed to the perception of zinfandel as a big, jammy wine. The rich and ripe style can be great for pairing with weightier and more intense dishes, just talk to your wine pro to find out which example might be right for you and the occasion.
Sauvignon Blanc — Garibović says, “Sauvignon blanc is so popular, and in so many people’s comfort zone, that at times it can be hard to guide guests to any other wine on the menu.” It’s refreshing and crisp but also has a uniquely green character, like bell pepper or a gooseberry quality. It pairs well with vegetable dishes or foods with an herb component. Most folks like the crispness and fruity quality of many New Zealand sauvignon blancs, but there are other options like Sancerre from the Loire Valley in France or Styria in southern Austria that are worth trying.
Riesling — Known as the darling of somms; “We all adore it,” says Garibović. Due to the popularity of Liebfraumilch in the ‘80s (Blue Nun), there is a common idea that all riesling is sweet, creating a well-known and oft examined difficulty of selling the wine in many settings. If you like a high acid, high tone, crisp, electric white wine, you cannot find a better option with lime, lemon, apricot flavors. Though even riesling with sweetness shouldn’t be discounted, due to its high acidity, the sugar is easily balanced and sometimes practically imperceptible. Riesling is also versatile in food pairing; turn to a dry example for salads with a vinaigrette, weightier and more concentrated bottles for spicy dishes and the classically sweet styles for fruit tarts and many other desserts.
Pinot Gris — Same as pinot grigio, both are wonderful, crisp and neutral with a fresh style. Gris is from France and expresses itself differently, a little richer and with a golden hue. A bottle of gris is a wine for a table of four because it pairs with most everything.
Chardonnay — Known as a love it or leave it variety, climate and winemaking have a great impact on chardonnay as a finished wine. A fairly neutral grape, tending towards a high toned, chalky, minerally wine from cool climates like Chablis, and riper apple, and even tropical fruits when grown in a warm place like Napa, chardonnay can be many things. Chardonnay can be a wine of process like lees stirring (to create creaminess), malo lactic conversion (the source of that buttered popcorn aroma) and oak usage (vanilla aromas and flavor) are employed. So, it’s important to ask, “Where does it come from and how is it made?” Cost can be a window into style as well, since extending time before bottling and the use of new oak barrels create a lot of expense for winemakers.
Gopher State Grapes:
In cold-climate Minnesota, which boasts just 80 wineries, fruity frontenac varietals and sweet la crescent take the lead.
Unlike in warmer-climates, Minnesota produces cold-hardy and disease-resistant wine grapes. At the University of Minnesota’s (UMN) Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, one of the top grape research programs in the country, more than 12,000 experimental vines are cultivated on 12 acres of land.
Matthew Clark, assistant professor of grape breeding and enology and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s director of research, says, “At the University of Minnesota, our grape breeding project has focused on developing new varieties of grapes … [It’s] focused on bringing in genetics through breeding methods of high-quality wine grapes that people are familiar with and bringing in the cold to learn what varieties can grow here.”
Clark says Minnesota’s short growing season and severe winters contribute to how long grapes are on the vine, which plays a major role in flavor and aroma development. “The grapes in Minnesota do quite well with our short season because they’ve been selected and adapted for those environments,” he says.
At the UMN’s experiment station, cultivating a new wine variety takes an average of 20 years. The enologists use traditional breeding methods to crossbreed the grapes to bring out the traits they are interested in. “This year, we are planning to make 50 crosses [and] from that we will target 5,000 seeds to grow next year,” Clark says. Genetic testing for specific traits and disease resistance follows; and after the vineyard produces fruit, three to five years later, the enologists taste it and determine if it is worth evaluating for a second time.
“In many cases, the answer is no. Things that perform well is one in a thousand vines,” Clark says.
To produce a new variety, the station relies on university collaborators, such as nurseries, to test the vines. Once there is a new variety released, the station works with growers to produce the vines, nurseries to propagate the vines and licensees to sell the vines.
“We certainly grow different varieties,” Clark says. La crescent is one variety, which has a high aromatic and is compared to moscato. “We often hear people say that wines in the Midwest are sweet … One reason we might see more sweet wines in the Midwest is because the grapes have a higher acidity.”
Residual sugar, found in wines with a good balance of sugar and acid, can offset the tartness in wine grapes and, in turn, create sweeter wines. Clark says the program is focusing on developing new wine grapes with lower acidity, with the goal of producing more dry wines.
The most recent variety, itasca, released in 2017, features lower acidity and high sugar levels. The variety outperformed everything in its class and survived the 2013–14 polar vortex; “It received an A+ grade,” Clark says. The white wine has been a best-seller among the UMN’s varieties.
Currently, over 100 selections are being tested for cold hardiness and disease resistance, as well as viticultural traits.